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How to shop for bread makers, according to a chef

Say goodbye to store-bought bread.
TODAY Illustration / Stefania Pelfini / Getty Images / Amazon / Walmart

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We're already making our way through the new year, which means it’s time to make good on those resolutions you were so excited about at the end of 2021. For some, resolutions might revolve around getting fit. For others, it might be cooking more or improving your diet. If any of those sound familiar, you’re not alone.

According to a survey conducted by consumer reporting company Statista about 2021 resolutions, 44 percent of respondents said that their resolution was to save more money and 39 percent wanted to improve their diets. Fortunately, cooking at home is one way to do both of those things.

While you’re busy researching recipes for your new favorite one-pan dinner, consider also making household staples in the comfort of your own kitchen, like bread. You might be thinking, “That’s too advanced for me!” Trust us, it’s not, thanks to a nifty appliance called a bread maker.

Making bread at home might sound intimidating, but it's not! Well…it doesn’t have to be, but you don’t have to just take our word for it. Shop TODAY spoke with Bob’s Red Mill’s Food Innovation Chef Sarah House to get her tips on navigating a bread maker and the benefits of using one.

What are the benefits of using a bread maker?

Aside from the money you’ll be saving in the long run, House said bread machines make healthy food more accessible. “It takes the belief that a lot of people had — that you have to know how to bake bread, you have to have been baking it for years — it takes that out of the equation so it’s much more accessible. You can buy the machine. You can put the ingredients in there and just set it and forget it. And then you have a really great homemade loaf of bread,” she said.

If one of your New Year's resolutions was to eat healthier or eat more whole grains, making your own bread at home is a great way to do that since you get to choose the types of flours that work best for your diet and any other ingredients that appeal to you, she added.

Beginner tips for using a bread maker

Read the manual. You’ve got a bread machine and you’re so excited to use it for the first time. Before you get to clicking every button just to find out what it does, House recommends reading the manual. Not only will it tell you how the machine works, but it will often include recipes or specific notes for certain settings that you'll want to pay attention to.

Start with the basics. If it’s your first time using a bread machine, House recommends starting with a basic recipe. (Maybe one that you’ve found in the user manual, wink wink.) She says an easy recipe is a good opportunity to get comfortable with your machine, figure out how it works in action and make note of any quirks.

Check on it during the mixing and proofing cycles. Once your bread has been in the mixing cycle for a minute or two, House recommends opening the lid — most machines are programmed to stop mixing when the lid is open — and scrape down any excess flour that is clinging to the sides, so you don’t end up with pockets of flour on the outside of your finished loaf.

For wheat- or gluten-based bread, there’s usually two proofing cycles, House notes. In this case, you’ll want to check on your dough right after the first mixing cycle and before the first proofing cycle begins. Sometimes it can become uneven during the process, so you’ll want to take that opportunity to level it so you get an even loaf at the end.

Take the paddles out (if you want to). House started by noting that this is more of an advanced tip, but says you can take the paddles out of the machine that are used for mixing before the second proof cycle starts. You’ll have to remove the dough first, then the paddles, put the dough back in and then reshape it before starting it up again. If you’re not quite comfortable with that yet, don’t worry. They’re designed to be left in there throughout the baking process. Just be sure to remove the paddles after your loaf is done and before you slice it.

Take out your loaf as soon as it’s done. You might want to let your loaf cool in the pan when it’s done, but House warns against that. “If you let it cool in the pan, you’re going to get a lot of condensation from that heat evaporating and the excess moisture. That’ll give you a soggy loaf,” she said.

Hand-wash the pan and paddles. Even though some parts may say they’re dishwasher-safe, House recommends washing them the traditional way because detergent, long cycles and water pressure can contribute to degraded coating.

Use quality ingredients. You’ve spent all this money on a brand-new bread machine, so be sure to invest in quality ingredients, too! “One of the most upsetting things when you’re baking bread is if it doesn't rise and you don’t know that until you’ve already used your ingredients. So get some fresh yeast when you start on your new bread baking adventure!” she advised.

Buy a bread bag. Homemade bread doesn’t last as long as store-bought bread when left out because of the lack of preservatives. House recommends buying a bread bag to keep your loaf from drying out the way it would if left unwrapped in a fridge. Which leads into her next tip…

Keep your bread chilled. Store your bread in the refrigerator or freezer to inhibit mold growth. While you can certainly leave your bread on the table for a few days, it’ll last longer if stored in a cool place and won’t start to stale as quickly. When you’re ready to eat it, you can take it out and pop it in the microwave for a few seconds to defrost it or set it out in the morning for use throughout the day.

What to look for when shopping for a bread maker

Now that you’ve got all the tips you need for nailing your first bake with a bread maker, it’s time to actually pick one! Before you begin your search for the perfect machine, House pointed out a few things you should be paying attention to:

  1. The shape of the loaf. While most bread machines have a traditional rectangular bread pan, some have more of a cylindrical pan which will end up with the dome on the side instead of the time. “It’s not a big deal. It’s gonna make a sandwich or French toast or whatever you’re wanting to make,” she said. “But if you have strong feelings about how you want your bread loaf to look, that is the first thing I would consider.”

  2. What do you want to make with it? If you know what types of bread you want to make, like a gluten-free loaf, you’ll want to look for a machine that has the setting for that. House added that there are machines that have additional mix cycles to make things like cake or jam, but they tend to come with a higher price tag. So if you’re thinking about buying one of those, evaluate if you’ll actually use those settings and if it’s worth shelling out the extra bucks.

  3. Think about the size and weight of the machine. This is especially important if you plan on storing it somewhere that will require you to move it to the counter before use. If so, be sure that it’s a weight you can easily handle.

  4. Take note of the handles. Like House noted in her tips for beginners, you want to remove the loaf as soon as the bake cycle is done, so try to choose handles that will work best for you. Some machines are designed with two handles — one on each side — and others have one handle across the type like a bucket.

  5. Choose good quality materials. House recommends choosing a machine that has a really good metal pan and paddles on the inside and plastic or plasticized metal on the outside. “Just make sure that it’s solid — that if you push on the side, it’s not bouncing in and out,” she told us.

  6. Don’t forget about the programming panel! While you’re checking all of these other things, take a look at the programming panel, too. You’ll want something that is easy to read so you always know exactly what’s going on in the process.

Expert-recommended and top-rated bread makers

Zojirushi Mini Breadmaker

House has worked with Zojirushi bread makers for over a decade and praised the high-quality loaves she consistently gets from them, calling it her preferred brand. "I even bought one for my dad for Christmas a few years ago and he uses it, too," she laughed.

If you have only one person at home or just want to make a smaller loaf, this Zojirushi mini bread machine will help you produce perfect one pound loaves. It even has those other settings House mentioned some machines could have, such as ones for cookie or pasta dough, cake and jam.

Zojirushi Home Bakery Virtuoso Plus Breadmaker

If you want to make a larger loaf, this Zojirushi model is made to produce a hefty two-pounder. The LCD display makes it easy for you to pick your setting, with options varying from whole wheat and gluten-free to sugar-free and vegan. There's even a rapid setting that can produce a white or whole wheat loaf in just under two and a half hours.

Cuisinart 2-Pound Bread Maker

An Amazon bestseller in the "bread machines" category, this bread maker comes fully loaded with a dozen preprogrammed menu options and three crust shades to choose from so you can customize your loaf to your liking. The viewing window on the top makes it easy for you to keep an eye on it throughout the process to ensure everything is going according to plan and keep you excited for the finished product.

Hamilton Beach Bread Maker Machine

Make anything from French bread to your favorite jam with this bread maker machine. You can even use it to prep dough for other delicious baked goodies like pizza, cinnamon buns or dinner rolls. One reviewer, who claims to have been baking bread for over 70 years, called it "a product that lives up to expectations and promises."

Oster Expressbake Breadmaker

If you're pressed for time, this Oster bread maker has an express bake option that will produce a fresh loaf in less than an hour. Aside from 12 bread settings and three crust settings, it also has a 13-hour programmable timer so you can set it and forget it.

Amazon Basics 2-Pound Non-Stick Bread Making Machine

If you're new to bread machines and aren't ready to invest in anything too fancy, this Amazon machine is just over $60 and has over four stars from 1,900+ verified reviewers. It has an express bake setting that will leave you facing a fresh loaf in 90 minutes. It even comes in black or white so you can choose the one that best matches your kitchen aesthetic.

KBS Large 17-in-1 Bread Machine

With the most extensive list of features in this group, this bread machine has 17 different settings, a 15-hour timer, a one-hour automatic keep warm timer, three crust settings and three loaf-size capacities. It even has a detachable fruit and nut dispenser that releases those ingredients at the most optimum time during the process, according to the brand's description.

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